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Gardner Chambliss, P.E.
06 Jul 2016
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On a Saturday morning, a group of middle school students from all over Atlanta, GA gathered to compete in one of the most unique STEM events around—the G3 Drones for Good Challenge. After six weeks of preparation, 160 students got the chance to fly the drones they had designed and built through an obstacle course that tested the agility and maneuverability of their creations. And not only that, they’d have a chance to discuss their ideas about how drones could be used to benefit their community with a panel of experts.
This competition wasn’t a concept generated by adults, but rather three Grady high school students who were current leaders in the school’s G3 Robotics Team and active in the team’s STEM outreach to middle schoolers. These students had joined with me as a mentor three years earlier to form a specialized robotics team, the Grady G3 Drone Team. The goal of this group was to learn more about drone technology, how it could be used, and of course how to fly them.
A key point of inspiration for the team was when they had an opportunity to meet with an Atkins client I was working with, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) Police department. MARTA shared how they wanted to use drone technology in their transit work and G3 discussed their upcoming flight-training program and invited the police officers to attend (and two did). This was a critical point that inspired the team to think about the bigger picture of drone applications and they soon began creating potential “real world” solutions to present to MARTA as well as others, such as the Georgia Professional Engineering Society.
Watch the Grady G3 Drone program overview video:
Soon after, the team learned about the 2014 Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International Drone Competition. They made a video about their program and entered—not realizing the competition was intended for advanced drone users and research programs, not high schoolers. Remarkably, the team was notified that they were quarter finalists and invited to compete at an FAA approved drone test site in Bend, Oregon. They ended up winning the People Choice award and came in second overall in the competition.
On the drive back to the airport one of the students said, “This was unbelievable, why can’t we take what we learned here and combine it with our middle school STEM robotic experience to create an amazing STEM learning experience?” My response was, “Fantastic idea! If you’re willing to put in the work to make it happen, let’s do it.” After a lot brainstorming the G3 Drone for Good Challenge was born.
Our goal wouldn’t just be to teach kids how to build and fly drones, but rather to understand the physics and engineering behind them, as well as the FAA rules/safe flying practices that govern their operation. And most importantly, the competition would also include a research project challenging them to come up with new ideas to show how drones can benefit their communities (just as the team had learned from the MARTA PD).
Students and adults came together in the planning process. Students recruited other students to help organize the competition. And as the team’s mentor, I recruited other engineers, educators, and pilots to serve as expert judges at the competition. As most of the participating middle school teams had never even touched a drone before, we all participated in conducting teaching, flight training, and troubleshooting lessons.
As teams arrived the day of the competition with the drones they had built, their eyes lit up as they caught their first glimpse of the playing field—complete with a variety of obstacles they would have to tackle. They huddled together in groups to discuss the challenges and develop their strategy for maneuvering the course. Meanwhile, the G3 team conducted flying demonstrations and manned a help desk to trouble shoot issues and answer questions.
As the time came for each team to compete, the middle schoolers had their opportunity to demonstrate everything they had learned over the past six weeks in front of the panel of judges. Each team discussed their drone designs and what had gone into them. They asked the experts questions and learned new ways of approaching challenges. And they proudly shared their ideas for drone applications that could benefit their communities and explained how these ideas could be implemented in the real world. Several of the ideas they came up with included a flying barrier for roads closed by mud slides, flying rescue flotation devices to swimmers in trouble, and supplying villages with food and emergency supplies in war torn areas.
The highlight of the event was the flying competition, which began with simple hovering and landing exercises, then advanced to the precision flying test where they had to burst helium balloons that were levitating a small platform. At the end of the event there were high-fives all around, with excitement already building for next year’s event. The proud teams carried home their trophies, which were awarded for technical excellence, drone applications, flying skills, and an all-around champion.
Watch the G3 Drones for Good Competition video:
While I can’t look into the future and say with certainty that this event will cause a student to pursue a STEM career, I think the odds are in our favor. Research by FIRST Robotics indicates that the earlier you introduce STEM to children and make it fun in the process, the more likely a student (especially girls and minorities) will want to pursue it, and the more successful they will be at it.
The G3 Drones for Good has been a fantastic success. The first year we had five teams compete. The second year we had 20 teams sign-up including four of the original five. We have not yet announced this year’s competition and already have a waiting list. This raises the question, “Why should we keep all this fun to ourselves?” Our new goal is help other groups host their own G3 Drones for Good Competition so that other students can share in this transformative learning experience. And as the G3 team expands their outreach, they themselves are learning new leadership, teamwork, and business skills that will serve them in any career they choose.
As one of the team members, Sajjad Ali, said in the embedded video, “It has changed us.” I have to agree. Seeing the unbelievable potential of our young people had indeed changed me too. I’m excited about the bright future these passionate, smart, and creative students are sure to bring about as they enthusiastically inspire the next generation.
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